The slave trade

Until the 18th century, both African rulers and European traders were happy to trade in enslaved people.

The beginning of the slave trade

The slave trade began with Portuguese and Spanish traders taking enslaved African people to the American colonies which they had conquered in the 15th century. Around 350,000 Africans were taken in this way as enslaved people to the Americas.

The video below explores the origins of the Atlantic slave trade.

Britain and the slave trade

Portrait of Sir John Hawkins, first English sea captain to sell slaves
Sir John Hawkins

In the 16th century English pirates started selling enslaved people to the Spanish colonies. Sir John Hawkins was the first sea captain to do so.

Treaty of Utrecht

In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed. Spain gave British slave traders the contract, known as the Asiento, to trade 144,000 enslaved people a year to Spanish South America. After 1700, the number of enslaved people being transported increased greatly.

It has been estimated that overall, about 12 million Africans were captured to be taken to the Americas as enslaved people.

Where were enslaved people taken?

Map of the slave trade, showing the percentage of slaves taken to different countries.
  • Over 55 per cent of the enslaved people were taken to Spanish South America.
  • About 35 per cent were taken to the West Indies.
  • Fewer than 5 per cent of enslaved people were sold in North America.

In 1770 approximately 100,000 slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas. British ships carried about 50,000 of these.

British trading ships took part in the slave trade up until its eventual abolition in 1807.